Favorite Films of 2017, Part II

It’s two months into 2018, which means it’s time for me to compile my top films from the previous year. With the Oscars right around the corner, this seems as good a time as any to roll out the list.

I already offered up #10 through #6. On to the top five.

5. While I am quite fond of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, this film’s treatment of race feels even more subversive as its dazzling technique at first masks then reveals its pointed thesis on race in American culture: being white means possessing the ability to take advantage of societal good will, while being black means being associated with crime or lack or sexual promiscuity. Good Time (dir. Safdie) accomplishes its purpose by following 24 hours in the life of two (white) brothers, one of whom is seeking to get the other out of jail. This film moves, its frenetic pace buffeted only by a couple of emotional scenes that bookend the film.

Good-Time

4. In The Lost City of Z (dir. Gray), James Gray manages to provide both a sense of adventure as well as an intensely personal statement about longing for something more than this world offers. This film is about appreciating mystery, about searching elsewhere for what we need here, and about our reach needing to exceed our grasp. But even as we might be carried away by such flights and explorations, Gray roots us in the real world of loss, sacrifice, and failure. Gray’s film lives in the midst of a tension, between “this city” and “the city yet to be discovered.”

lost city

3. Phantom Thread (dir. Anderson) finds director P.T. Anderson exploring 1950s London fashion scene, through the experiences of Reynolds Woodcock, a designer of high quality (and even higher-priced) dresses for the elite women of Europe. The lead character prefers his world tightly controlled, and his women more so. When his newest love interest, Alma, moves into the house, a battle of wills commences, as the couple seeks an elusive but glorious reality—artistic achievement in communion with relational satisfaction—which we come to discover carries its own dark underbelly.

Phantom_Thread

2. In Lady Bird (dir. Gerwig), the easy (and, at times, abrupt) movement between comedy and heartbreak mirrors the life of a teenager well, while Gerwig’s script creates a sense of groundedness–both in place (Sacramento, CA), and in its attachment to wisdom as well. The Catholic elements add a sense of depth and transcendence to the proceedings as Lady Bird learns something of what it means to mature personally and to love others–namely, to offer others the gift of attentiveness.

lady bird

1. The Unknown Girl (dir: Dardennes) follows a young doctor, Jenny, as she plies her trade in a low-income neighborhood. But when a murder happens very near her office, everything changes. By staging the doctor as something of a community priest, the Dardennes are able to access more directly something that has undergirded all their fiction films: the humanity and dignity of all people. Jenny affirms her neighbors by caring for their needs, tending their wounds, and even hearing their confessions. The brilliant final shot provides a downright incarnational vision for humanity that I won’t soon forget.

unknown girl

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Favorite Films of 2017, Part I

It’s two months into 2018, which means it’s time for me to compile my top films from the previous year. With the Oscars coming up this weekend, this seems as good a time as any to roll out the list.

2017 was a strong year at the movies, especially suggested by the presence of certain excellent films just outside my favorite ten, such as Personal Shopper, Olivier Assayas’ meditation on materialism and spirituality; Get Out, Jordan Peele’s comedic horror film that brilliantly portrays what it means to be other as a person of color; and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, an unvarnished, humanist portrayal of poor people living in the shadows of Disneyworld.

On to numbers 10 through 6.

10. The Work (dir. Aldous/McCleary) traces a long weekend in the life of civilians and prisoners in the midst of an intense group therapy session inside the walls of Folsom prison. The film’s portrayal of “The Work” humanizes both the prisoners and the civilians, as empathy gradually develops among the men in the group. It is in and through this process of knowing and being known that a glimmer of hope awakens: Hope that we might resist easy narratives about prisoners and civilians; hope that life might flourish in dark places; and hope that we might truly see someone outside ourselves, and that in seeing, we will understand better what love truly means.

work

9. Set in Kabul at the height of the Taliban’s power, The Breadwinner (dir. Twomey) shows us what life is like for both males and females in a sexist, misogynist, and unjust society. That it is able to do this through the eyes of a single character, an 11-year old girl forced to cut her hair and pose as a boy just so she can buy food for her family, is a testament to the strength of the original story, in addition to the adaptation by the filmmakers. The profound sense of injustice is palpable, though Twomey wisely keeps the most shocking moments out of sight, just enough to keep it bearable for younger audiences. That The Breadwinner recognizes the importance and power of stories to form and stabilize our identities as individuals and communities gives it a transcendent wisdom that is both inspiring and moving.

breadwinner

8. Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Villeneuve) continues the story begun by the original film 25 years ago. Some years on from the events of that earlier film, the haze of the city is matched only by the mystery that confronts the main character, a detective called K, about his particular case and, more generally, about his (and the film’s) looming questions on the nature of humanity. The oppressiveness of the music adds to the mystery an appropriate feeling of imprisonment or constriction. Gosling acquits himself well here, even as most of the other actors have much less to do. A brief scene between Gosling and a memory creator played by Carla Juri makes a poignant centerpiece for the film, though there are a number of other excellent sequences that mark the emotional landscape.

blade-runner-2049

7. Nearing the graduation of his daughter, Eliza, from high school, Romeo’s plan to have her study abroad (and thereby have access to a better life outside Romania) is nearly complete. But a day before Eliza’s senior exams, she is violently attacked, leaving her future in doubt. Graduation (dir. Mungiu) carefully unfolds the ethical dilemma that faces a father who wants the best life possible for his daughter. The film sharply traces the destructiveness of dishonesty on relational, generational, legal, and even political levels. Mungiu builds toward a pretty affecting conclusion that raises questions even as it moves toward some semblance of resolution.

graduation_2016

6. The Son of Joseph (dir. Green) is a joyful film, which sort of feels odd to say given the strict formalism of the first two-thirds. But the static and balanced shots early give way to movement and imbalance in the last act, which mirrors the deeply personal journey of the titular son. The film’s conclusion, which employs a formal technique used often earlier in the film, was shockingly vulnerable, and makes a profound statement about love and care as the centerpiece of true family.

sonofjoseph-a

Six Discoveries in 2017

Each year I enjoy the opportunity to seek out older films that I’ve never seen. In the process, I discover some gems that I feel grateful to have uncovered. For me, this historical work is important, as it reminds me that there is much out there sitting on the shelves of Netflix’s warehouse, or worse, are simply unavailable. The films on this list share a common concern for truthful portrayals of humanity, craftsmanship marked by beauty, and/or an appreciation for the good.

Six Discoveries from Years Past:

  • Nightjohn (1996, dir. Burnett): Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Burnett was working for Disney on this film, and so the standard feel-good sentimentality caveats are in order. Despite (or maybe because of) those limitations, Burnett manages to imbue this with real heart and humanity. The story centers upon an enslaved man, John, arriving at a new plantation. Unbeknownst to the plantation owner, John has an especially rare skill: he knows how to read. He begins to teach a 12-year old girl, Sarny, in secret, because such an action is punishable by death. To Burnett’s credit, the people on screen come across as actual human beings (including the white villains, but especially the black leads) rather than stereotypes, and Burnett manages to direct our attention to a variety of themes: literacy, freedom, feminism, power, etc. As John tells Sarny, “Words are freedom.” In that spirit, films can be as well.

    nightjohn2

  • Pickup on South Street (1953, dir. Fuller): Fantastic storytelling in this crime drama. The camerawork is distinctive without being flashy. And it includes the wonderful Thelma Ritter, who’s as good as she ever was in this film.

    pickup on south street

  • She’s Gotta Have It (1986, dir. Lee): Formally, so good. Loved the mirroring of the opening shot with the closing. The interspersing of New York photographs hearkened back to Allen’s Manhattan, helping to develop the film’s sense of place. And the exquisite dolly shot that has become Lee’s trademark didn’t disappoint. The film is challenging in its characterization of Nola–an independent woman (a positive, for sure) who takes a reckless and destructive approach to relationships.

    shes gotta have it

  • Chimes at Midnight (1965, dir. Welles): Striking imagery and a fabulous characterization from Welles undergird both the comedy and the tragedy of this tale of Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff. As usual, Welles’ camera never ceases to find an interesting angle from which to shoot, moving in for extreme close-ups or shooting wide in a cavernous palace or on a barren hillside. And the battle scene feels quite modern, creating a sense of chaos that seems appropriate to the moment.

    Chimes-At-Midnight

  • Silver Lode (1954, dir. Dwan): After Dan Ballard is arrested by Marshalls on charges of murder and theft, the accused simply refuses to tell anyone what actually happened, because he knows no one would believe him. Though he had lived for years in the community, once labelled with false charges, he becomes persona non grata. This underscores the film’s McCarthy-era echoes, while giving them a sense of humanity, prompting us to ask ourselves whether we would join the mobs gathering to oppose “the bad guy” or if we would take a more measured approach and listen to reason. The only one willing to listen in Dwan’s world is the whore. . . sounds about right.

    silver lode

  • White Heat (1949, dir. Walsh): A well-paced thriller in which every character of significance tries to scheme or manipulate someone else. This fundamental human disconnection reveals an underlying lack of humanity at its end, portrayed ferociously and tragically by Cagney.

    white heat

The Little Match Girl (1928)

Sometimes, the best way to perceive the nature of a thing is to place it in contrast to a radically different object. Jean Renoir adapts Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale in such a way as to highlight the harsh realities of poverty. He achieves his purpose through a sharp juxtaposition of opposites.

In the 33-minute film’s first half, a figure that appears only in shadow forces the poor match girl, Karen, out of her shack and into the blustery night to sell her wares. As she walks through the town, Renoir employs a wide shot followed by a medium shot. People hustle by her as she spins right and left to catch their attention. The movement looks something like a companionless dance, graceful and fluid yet empty. Furthermore, not a single person looks at her until she stops, worn out and depressed from her lack of success.

When a man in need of matches sees her, a glimmer of hope lights the film. But some friends quickly usher him into a nearby restaurant. Just before, she had peered through the window of a car to get a better look at his friends. After the man enters the restaurant, she presses her nose to the window, an outsider to the comfortable world within. Two boys also see her, but only as a target for their snowballs.

When she finally shuffles away from the restaurant, a policeman takes notice, and they spend a few minutes looking in a toy store window together, admiring a collection of figurines in a miniature town filled with joy and peace and order. The encounter is pleasant, but Karen and the policeman have something in common—they both stand outside that wonderful world in the toy store window. When she departs, she can’t bring herself to go home without a sale. So she sits under a lamp in the snow and lights matches to keep warm. Her grueling world offers her no comfort, no solace, and no justice.

At this point, Karen’s hunger and chill lead her to hallucinate that she is in a toy store where everything is life size. Dolls, a ballerina, and a giant beach ball populate this strange place. Renoir blurs the image during the transition, visually indicating a movement away from the harsh realism of the film’s first half.

In the store, Karen finds a jack-in-the-box who happens to be the same policeman she had seen on the street. She also spies out the commanding officer of a group of toy soldiers, the same man who needed matches, the same man who held with him the promise of taking her to another kind of world. She runs to him, where he declares his love for her and provides her with a table full of food. Her dreams are coming true.

When the jack-in-the-box approaches them and identifies himself as Death, the officer and Karen jump on a horse and ride into the heavens, hoping that there they will escape. But Death finds them even there. When Death finally lays a lifeless Karen under a cross, the symbol of suffering morphs into a flowering bush. As the petals drop on her dead face, Renoir brings us back to reality, snowflakes falling instead of petals. No one knows of the beautiful moments she had in her last bits of consciousness, seeing only the foolishness of keeping warm with matches.

The abrupt shift from the vision back to reality has the effect of highlighting the painful realities of Karen’s poverty. It’s in the contrast with fantasy that we see the reality clearly, especially because reality actually breaks into Karen’s fantasy and ends it. Renoir is kind to Karen in that final moment, though, closing the film with an out-of-focus close-up of her face. Renoir reminds us of her fantastical vision of a world that, at least for a moment, carried with it some measure of hope. The tragedy of the film is that people like Karen have no hope of elevating their circumstances. But the beautiful desire for something better—for joy and peace and justice—that lies in the most desperate of hearts serves to ignite in us a glimmer of hope as well.

Top Ten of 2016

The Oscars serve as something of an official end point to the annual film year, so I have made a habit of compiling a top ten list in the week leading up to the show each year. This has the benefit of giving me a couple of extra months to catch up on a whole host of films that either never made it to my area, or that I simply wasn’t able to see during their theatrical run.

This year I saw interesting and, in some cases, very good films from filmmakers I’ve enjoyed in the past (Linklater, Coens, Malick, Herzog) as well as exciting entries from newer or first-time filmmakers (Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, and Zachary Treitz’s Men Go to Battle). I was also grateful for a number of films that tackled important themes such as otherness (Moonlight), injustice (13th), and family tension (Our Little Sister).

In addition to these, there were ten films that especially caught my eye this year.

10. The Innocents (dir. Anne Fontaine)

Unlike it’s namesake (1961’s The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr), this film doesn’t fit neatly into the horror genre. But a horror film it is, as we see on display these nuns falling to the temptation to preference laws over love, principles over people, and guidelines over grace. The results are painful, but even in Fontaine’s dark world, glimmers of light shine through.

9. Pete’s Dragon (dir. David Lowery)

I take great joy in sharing movies with my kids, and it is a rare treat to see a new film together that we all love. Lowery displays a sure hand at guiding a major studio project, but does so in a way that doesn’t avoid the messiness of reality, that appreciates the wonder of childhood, and understands the human need to believe in the unseen.

8. Silence (dir. Martin Scorcese)

I first read Endo’s novel, SIlence, 20 years ago when I heard Scorcese wanted to film it. Little did I know it would take so long to find the screen. The film reflects poignantly on the nature of suffering and martyrdom, particularly as they express themselves in the context of Christian faith. This film is an especially hard sell to American evangelicals, who tend to frame faith fundamentally in the context of joy and victory.

7. Mountains May Depart (dir. Jia Zhang-ke)

Jia is experimenting a bit here–moving toward greater emotional accessibility, using English for a significant portion of the film. I liked the first two acts better than the third, but Jia brings the film around by the end, showing us that once again the personal and political are not so far apart.

6. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)

Exuberant. Chazelle’s film speaks to the dreamers in all of us. In some ways, he mimics the 60s work of French filmmaker Jacques Demy, yet giving us a more “realist” portrait than Demy’s more polished offerings–neither Gosling nor Stone are exquisite singers or dancers. But this, it seems to me, is part of the point–the musical breaks into real life, on par with Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You.

5. Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

Lonergan’s strength throughout his career has been his writing, and that continues in Manchester. The film is in many ways overwhelmingly sad, but Lonergan manages to work in plenty of levity that gives shape and definition to the sadness. I most appreciate the attention to psychological and emotional details. Oh, and Michelle Williams. Good night does she make an impression in limited screen time.

4. Aquarius (dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho)

Best I can tell, I haven’t seen Sonia Braga in a film since the not-very-good Eastwood film, The Rookie, which happened more than 25 years ago. I am happy to report that not only is she still working, she is radiant in this Brazilian film about an aging music critic hanging on desperately to the past. This is the second Filho directed film I’ve seen (after 2012’s Neighboring Sounds), and with Aquarius‘ reflection on memory, physical culture, and capitalism, there is much to chew on here.

3. The Fits (dir. Anna Rose Holmer)

The formal work on display here is top notch–confident, rich in detail, and complementary to the narrative. I especially appreciate Holmer’s eye for framing and color, and so many of her formal choices make for a fascinating complement to the film’s story–I got a serious Claire Denis vibe. Of course, the central performance from Hightower is fantastic, relying as it does not just on her quiet persona, but on a kind of physical movement that deeply informs the characterization she offers. The film speaks powerfully to the invisibility that young black women face, and the ways an encounter with mystery might impact that reality.

2. Love & Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman)

Biting dark comedy, this is. So much so that at times I found myself wondering if the film would ever come up for air. Stillman eventually gives us a breath here and there, even as he deftly avoids cheap sentiment. The real star here, however, is the verbal repartee, whether it’s the edgy contributions of Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan, or the varied responses of those around her which serve to throw Lady Susan’s approach to life in sharp relief.

1. Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

This is science fiction done well. This is filmmaking done well. It’s comfortable with silence and dialogue on a lower register. It doesn’t need explosions to advance its ideas. Because it has ideas, and it connects those to the lived experience of human beings. This is a film about choosing connection rather than destruction, life rather than death. This is a film that dares to envision a world of cooperation and harmony, a world marked by transcendent vision rather than limited perception. Even in its melancholy, this is a film that is as life-affirming as anything I’ve seen in recent memory.

The Look of Silence (2015)

In 1965, the Indonesian army along with many civilians “cleansed” their country of “communists,” leaving more than 1 million people dead and countless families shattered. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence tracks one of these personal stories, that of a forty-four year old man named Adi, a traveling optometrist who seeks to engage his customers in conversations about the country’s past.

Adi’s story is simple: his older brother, Ramli, was brutally executed in the genocide by men known in the home village, some three years before Adi was born. Adi’s parents are still living, though his father, 103 years old, is blind and has largely lost the use of his legs. As Adi moves through the villages that surrounded his family’s home in 1965, he inevitably meets a number of older people who respond to his historical queries with equal measures of denial, misinformation, and righteous indignation in support of the cleansing. Most of all, however, these villagers—whether observers, perpetrators, or victims—simply encourage and/or threaten Adi to discontinue his line of questioning about the past. The past is in the past, they say. In other words, leave it there, and let the injustice continue.

The quiet determination that Adi carries into his conversations about the genocide stands as a call for justice in the face of what almost seems unbelievable injustice. Not only has his brother been executed, but those most responsible have not just avoided punishment. These executioners have lived comfortable lives, gaining their wealth from political favors or from entering government and making their living on the backs of the people for three or more decades. Adi, a simple tradesman, has no means to bring those responsible to justice. He brings with him only his doggedness to expose and confront the evil that has long lay dormant all around him. That no one—neither victims nor perpetrators—has any interest in pursuing justice suggests the depth to which the genocidal wickedness has done its work.

Taking a quieter approach than Oppenheimer’s previous film on the same historical subject (2012’s The Act of Killing), this film examines the contours of the personal cost for the victims and their continuing powerlessness in the face of communal silence. Adi’s courage to speak with this cast of killers serves to humanize both the victim and the killers. Scene after scene places Adi face to face with these brutal men. These men deny or soften their crimes, or they threaten Adi. But these he accuses are most certainly men.

One affecting scene late in the film finds Adi visiting a man and his adult daughter. The man begins by bragging about his crimes in graphic detail. But once Adi tells his story, the man’s daughter admits she knew nothing about these things, and describes these killings as ‘sadistic.’ As Adi leaves their home with a familial embrace from the daughter, one cannot help but hope for some measure of reconciliation among the next generation.

But the reality is probably much different. If there is hope it is likely only a glimmer. Most others of Adi’s generation and older remain stubborn in their silence, firm in their refusal to even listen to a description of the crimes of their fathers. Further, the string of “anonymous” names in the end credits testifies to a continuing fear among the people. And this is the reality: Evil has bred that fear. The people’s fear has birthed isolation and silence that leaves the community enforcing and extending the injustice of prior generations.

This isn’t a land of freedom or democracy, despite the claims of the Indonesian government officials. Far, far from it, in fact.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

The latest film from the Coen brothers was actually the result of an idea brewing way back in 2005, intended to complete what star George Clooney called his “idiot trilogy,” including his previous Coen efforts O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty. Whatever changes have occurred in the script since then, I don’t think there’s any doubt that in Hail, Caesar!, Clooney’s Baird Whitlock could (and should) be considered an nothing less than an idiot.

That probably sounds harsh as a description, but it should be noted that the Coens seem to have a real affection for the characters they’ve created in this film—including Baird Whitlock. Admittedly, not everyone in the film is especially agile-minded. Many are consumed with their own projects and lack the ability to empathize with others.

Standing out from the pack is one Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio executive tasked with keeping a host of cinematic plates spinning—a stuffy, high-minded drama, a singing cowboy western (with a director that looks suspiciously like John Ford), and a couple of energetic musicals. The film opens with Mannix in a confessional, seeking absolution for lying to his wife about cigarette smoking. It seems a small thing, and that’s just the point: Mannix is conscientious when it comes to his responsibilities to and relationships with others.

Indeed, this opening scene bestows on Mannix a religious bearing. That the film returns Mannix to the confessional in its final minutes, forming a bookend with the earlier visit, only serves to undergird the identification. As the film plays out with Mannix in the midst of every narrative thread, it gradually becomes clear that the Coens have fashioned this studio head a priest of the secular realm.

First thing every morning, Mannix calls a “higher power” (New York) on the phone to report on the business at hand. He then spends his days mediating between prickly directors and overly sensitive or entitled actors. He makes sacrifices to cover the sins of his people. And he seeks to bring encouragement, guidance, and vision to his flock of misfits and idiots. All the while, none of it is appreciated. None lauded. It’s simply expected that he will be there, someone to rely upon when disobedience and sin seem ready to undermine this society-in-miniature.

And yet, I cannot help but wonder whether the Coens have laced their film with a strong dose of irony. For while the overarching purpose of Mannix’ priestly character serves to align religion and film—suggesting inherent significance for the latter through the connection with the former—the fact that the movie studio (as portrayed in the film) is undoubtedly filled with misfits and idiots seems to raise for the Coens a light-heartedly asked, but nonetheless important question: How significant can film be with this cast of clowns running the operation?

Such a question cuts back the other way as well: How significant can the church be with its own cast of clowns running the operation? I suspect the Coens are exactly right in linking religion and film for the way their respective stories can elevate the human condition. And while I don’t expect that the church or film art is going away anytime soon, I do expect that their lasting contributions to the world will be connected to the degree which they are able to bring humanity into contact with beauty, goodness, and truth.